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PSALM 151

The season for paradox has come

when two become one

yet remain distinctive

when our little enclave

overflows with reminiscences

and happy wishes

and we bask in familiar voices

and all is friendliness.

The complex self is now suspended

for this is a day for a rondo

a jig a romp ….whatever,

a day for anecdotes and toasts

when the best man

rises with a roguish smile

and holds his glass high:

‘here’s to Bacchus,’ he calls out,

‘that rascal, that goy!’

and the young men laugh

and stomp their feet

and there is a happy

cacophony of voices

and the rondo picks up speed

and swirls into a dance.

Even the elders dance.

Let elixir now fall from the air

and may a circle of humming birds

hover over your heads

as you pledge to be steadfast

and generous to each other,

and the cantor sings a song of songs.

Do you not hear the ancient voice

of Israel calling for

kindness and responsibility?

Night falls, alas,

and the rondo comes to an end

and vanishes into memory.

The musicians have departed

and paradox is asleep.

May the wisdom of Solomon

be with you.

— CARL RAKOSI

* * *|

Carl Rakosi’s poetry career is a remarkable story of survival and revival. Born in 1903 in Berlin, he immigrated to the United States at age 3 and grew up in Chicago and Indiana. He began writing poetry as a 17-year-old undergraduate at the University of Chicago and later transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where edited a literary magazine before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After a variety of jobs, including teacher and mess-boy on a merchant ship, he received his Master of Social Work degree and took as his profession psychotherapist and social worker. He retired in 1968 as the executive director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis.

Rakosi, who in his younger years was a Marxist, became convinced in the late 1930s that his style of poetry would not produce radical social change — and laid down his pen. But in 1965, he received a letter about his work from an admiring scholar, Andrew Crozier, and, as Rakosi told the Forward: “This not at all unusual letter knocked the wind out of me. I sat there, I don’t know how long, not thinking anything, yet sensing that something big had just happened, something had changed. Was it possible I could write again?” Rakosi did, and went on to publish new work, “Amulet” (1967) and “Ere-Voice” (1971), with New Directions. In 1986, the National Poetry Foundation brought together a 500-page volume, “The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi.” His most recent collection, “The Old Poet’s Tale,” came in 1999 from Etruscan Books. He currently lives and writes in San Francisco.

As a poet, Rakosi has generally been grouped with the Objectivists, mostly Jewish-American poets who emerged in the 1930s. (Others included Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Neidecker and Charles Reznikoff.) William Carlos Williams was also in their company, and like Williams’s work, Rakosi’s is distinctive for its flashes of sardonic humor, and for its rapid shifts in tone. His fidelity is to the always-moving currents of mood and mind, like the surprising half-Greek, half-Yiddish toast in “Jewish Wedding Song”:

here’s to Bacchus,’ he calls out,‘that rascal, that goy!’

“Jewish Wedding Song” was requested three years ago by London-based poet Anthony Rudolf for his son’s wedding.

Then, Rakosi explained, “Last year one of my granddaughters was getting married, and she wanted me to write her a wedding poem…. I built up Tony’s poem a bit and used it for the wedding in Los Angeles. It was outdoors, in the evening at the Beverly Hills Hotel… a very impressive place… I read it right after the rabbi performed his ceremony.”

Inspired, then, by two weddings, Rakosi brings to the seemingly simple occasional poem “a complex self” that sweeps both high literary culture and yidishkayt into a fast-paced dance, a “rondo, a jig.” Midrashic tradition says Solomon composed the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes at two separate times of his life, lusty youth and wise old age. But Rakosi, with youthful vigor — “even elders dance” — marries both tones, the joy of the dance and the wisdom that knows that to every thing there is a season. The shift in mood is signaled when:

Night falls, alas,and the rondo comes to an endand vanishes into memory.

The quick dance steps that lead from celebration to wistfulness define, not just in this poem, but in his great body of work, a “season for paradox” — when joy and wisdom “become one,” “yet remain distinctive.”

It’s a great joy then to present the work of poet Carl Rakosi, now in his hundredth year, still wise and still dancing.

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